Reality check: maybe evil can still be successful after all

Every now and again I get a reminder that the world only changes very slowly.  I’ve had one this week.

On Tuesday I wrote a post entitled The user is in control where I talked about how social sites are becoming a bit like democracies and how to succeed they needed to do what their users wanted – sometimes in ways that hurt them in the short term.

I think that is right today for many of the services beloved by bloggers and the digerati (like Digg), but a lot of the world hasn’t yet woken up to the joys of participation, and the sites they use can still get away with doing pretty much whatever they want.

To stretch the democracy analogy a bit, these mainstream sites are like countries where people don’t understand or care enough about politics to bother to vote.  Unless users or voters participate and engage governments or site owners aren’t really accountable and will pursue their own interests.

In the case of site owners that will typically mean prioritising monetisation ahead of their users experience and/or right to privacy.

For those that haven’t guessed I am talking about Facebook more than anything else.

This post first started to form in my mind when Alan Patrick left the following comment to my user in control post:

The real lesson of Beacon is that you can be as big a b*stard as you like if the rank and file don’t understand what you are doing :-)

Then today I read Danah Boyd making the same point:

I kinda suspect that Facebook loses very little when there is public outrage. They gain a lot of free press and by taking a step back after taking 10 steps forward, they end up looking like the good guy, even when nine steps forward is still a dreadful end result.

As Umair has said, they have got to have evil DNA to act this way, but  if most of their users don’t understand or care then it won’t matter – and it looks like they don’t , again from Danah Boyd:

Given what I’ve learned from interviewing teens and college students over the years, they have *no* idea that these changes are taking place (until an incident occurs).

I still think that over time the ideas behind Cluetrain will become pervasive and good companies will win out over evil ones, but it will take time, probably a long time.  It is easy to forget that when you spend your life at the forefront of innovation and your main source of input is your friends in the blogcup.

  • How social sites address privacy issues can have strategic implications, due to the customer model that the site employs. If a social site’s customer model is that customers are nothing but sheep with data to be fleeced, the social site may gain advertisers and business in the short term. Unfortunately, that approach also steers the social site toward creating a rather mindless and passive customer base that can’t add much value in terms of initiative and innovation. On the other hand, a customer model that treats customers as equal and active partners in the brand, with appropriate privacy protections (i.e., respect), need not lose out on ad revenue, and still keeps vital innovation avenues open at the user level.

    Of course, when you’re juggling a paper valuation of $16 billion, the evil path to the bank may seem fairly tempting.

  • How social sites address privacy issues can have strategic implications, due to the customer model that the site employs. If a social site’s customer model is that customers are nothing but sheep with data to be fleeced, the social site may gain advertisers and business in the short term. Unfortunately, that approach also steers the social site toward creating a rather mindless and passive customer base that can’t add much value in terms of initiative and innovation. On the other hand, a customer model that treats customers as equal and active partners in the brand, with appropriate privacy protections (i.e., respect), need not lose out on ad revenue, and still keeps vital innovation avenues open at the user level.

    Of course, when you’re juggling a paper valuation of $16 billion, the evil path to the bank may seem fairly tempting.

  • If you’ve ever spent too much time in the company of optimistic entrepreneuers/financiers, try John Gray’s ‘Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions’ and ‘Straw Dogs’. He’s been at Oxford, Harvard, Yale and now at the LSE and relative to your post it’s, well, thought-provoking stuff to say the least 🙂

  • If you’ve ever spent too much time in the company of optimistic entrepreneuers/financiers, try John Gray’s ‘Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions’ and ‘Straw Dogs’. He’s been at Oxford, Harvard, Yale and now at the LSE and relative to your post it’s, well, thought-provoking stuff to say the least 🙂